What will the first president of Mars look like? It may not be an alien who wins the inaugural Martian democratic election, but it still could be a person who looks nothing like the humans on Earth.

Although we are still quite a bit away from a full-blown space colony on Mars, not to mention one that becomes an independent nation, space exploration is moving in the colonization direction. There are plenty of viable options for a space habitat, including Earth’s moon and temperate planets in other solar systems, but Mars is usually the main focus of such discussions. And once we are there, it’s possible the colonists will evolve into a new race of humans, no matter the skin color or other physical characteristics of the pioneers who first settle the Red Planet, scientists say.

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It could take hundreds of thousands or even millions of years for a new species of human to descend from the modern humans we know and love today. But smaller and sometimes superficial changes within the same species, like in the size of a nose, may not take as long to emerge and become dominant. In an interview with International Business Times, John Hawks, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said our species has adapted quickly to the diverse environments throughout the world where we live, and he noted that human skin pigmentations have emerged in the last 20,000 years or so.

On Mars, or in another space colony, with an isolated human society, physical characteristics might change randomly as the settlers procreate. But “if they can mate with whom they want, it could be … that a cultural preference emerges,” Hawks said from South Africa, where he is investigating the fossils of a recently discovered extinct human relative, Homo naledi.

mars-globe A future human space colony, like one on Mars, would live in such a drastically different environment from what can be found on Earth that the settlers evolve into a new race of people. Photo: NASA

Cultural preferences probably played a role in a lot of the different physical features, like varying face shapes, we see in people today, Hawks said. Given enough generations to make babies, the space colonists “could end up looking weird — and whether they’re weird [to us] or not is a cultural standard for us.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is leading the way when it comes to humans touching down on Mars and eventually establishing a colony. The company made history and a huge stride toward sustainable space travel when it successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket vertically, allowing it to be reused on future missions. But space agencies around the world are also doing work toward that goal. NASA, for example, has done experiments on farming in microgravity aboard the International Space Station.

Apart from Mars colonists developing their own culture and standards of physical beauty, the different environment could also play a role in the physical features that become dominant in a colony and possibly lead to a new race of humans. Evolutionary biologist Scott Solomon, a professor at Rice University, told IBT that in theory, any trait giving Mars explorers an edge over their compatriots would spread in such an alien environment.

“Evolution would proceed more quickly because natural selection will really favor any advantages that some individuals might have,” he said.

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Skin color is just one example of a trait that could prove beneficial.

Mars has a thin atmosphere, meaning radiation from the sun hits harder than it would on Earth, which is protected by its atmospheric cocoon. Without that first line of defense, the skin pigment that helps us on Earth could be even more important on Mars. Solomon, who has written a book called “Future Humans” about how Earthlings might evolve, said it's “conceivable that on Mars … there would be even stronger selection for darker pigmentation” and skin color, or for humans to evolve to use different kinds of pigmentation in their skin for more protection from the sun’s rays.

The speed with which a new skin color emerges would vary depending on just how advantageous it is to have that pigmentation in a Martian environment. If the difference is huge, Solomon said, “in relatively few generations, that’s going to become a really common trait.”

Evolution could occur quickly because the radiation from the sun on the unprotected Mars surface could exponentially increase the number of genetic mutations of each new generation. Stay tuned for more on the Mars mutants we can expect to create.